This review contains spoilers.
When The White Queen sticks to the theme of women’s utter lack of agency during the Wars of the Roses, it’s at least an empathetic drama. Its mothers, daughters and wives are moved from pillar to post without so much as a by-your-leave, forced to marry against their will, stripped of their home and children, and expected to accept it all with a silent curtsey. Who couldn’t muster some pity for fanatical Margaret Beaufort, convinced she’s being punished by God, or for young, terrified Anne Neville, made to wed the son of her enemy, a man with the unsettling look of Ant McPartlin in a Pete Doherty wig?
The problem is, the drama has more on its To Do list than staging the injustices of late medieval gender politics. It wants to do that, and dramatise the revolving door that is two decades of the English throne in the period, and give equal weight to at least three intersecting lead stories. In just ten episodes, that’s a teetering full plate by anyone’s standards.
By the looks of this week’s courtroom trial too, The White Queen also fancies itself as a fifteenth century Law & Order. A shufty at Wikipedia reveals that Warwick’s lead doll accusation is bonafide stuff, but so much about the scene, from Jacquetta’s request for a character witness, to Warwick’s address to the court, felt incongruously modern and more than a little camp.
As did Margaret of Anjou’s feet-first introduction, which identified her as a cape-swishing, French-accented comic-book villain. Grandiose was the aim; shallow was the unfortunate result.
Anjou’s frosty alliance with Warwick restored Henry VI, the man against whom the Kingmaker had originally revolted, to the throne. Henry’s second coronation coincided (according to the editors at any rate) with the birth of an heir for Edward IV, an arrival that obviously casts a shadow over the mad King’s fragile restoration. Now that little Henry Tudor’s ears have pricked up about his mum’s royal plans for him, there’s yet another complication on its way. To recap then, old King Henry (whose son is called Edward), has replaced pretty-boy Edward (whose son is also called Edward), and hot on their heels is young Lancastrian heir, Henry. Confused? Don’t worry, the script is sure to explain it all again next week, and the week after that, and the week after that…
The one area in which The White Queen doesn’t over-stretch itself is the action. Save a couple of beheading flashbacks with half a dozen extras, the story doesn’t go to war, but remains – understandably – at home with the women. It’s an explicable, and no doubt economical choice, but results in the audience being left to hear about the exciting stuff second-hand, as if we’re watching a play with limited scenery. How much tension and atmosphere can be evoked by the reading out of a letter? Not a great deal it appears, not here anyway.
That said, episode four did have some briefly tense moments, the first when Elizabeth and family fled the tower to seek sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, and the second, Anne Neville’s horrible deflowering. As last week’s despair gala proved, The White Queen is very good at demonstrating just how miserable and powerless its women are, and Anne being raped by her new husband was proof enough of that. “In war, men fight with sword, cannon. We women? We find our own weapons”, Jacquetta told Elizabeth. That arsenal was feeling somewhat depleted this week.
By focusing the story on its women, I’d mistakenly expected The White Queen to offer up some feminist wish-fulfilment fantasy, but that turns out not to be its agenda at all. Instead, its lead characters (a regressive archetypal trio of hysteric, witch, and pawn) are shown disenfranchised and abused. Perhaps The White Queen’s naysayers should give it more credence for historical realism than we first thought.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.
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